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Denying Parliament info citing ‘national security’ undemocratic. Govt moves need oversight

In the tussle between weakening Parliament and power-hungry executive, Indians are losing their voice.

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An interesting theme has been flagged by Manish Tewari in his book, 10 Flashpoints 20 years: National Security Situations That Impacted India. The theme relates to parliamentary oversight in a democratic structure. In essence, the issue is about parliamentary supremacy over the executive as a value that must pervade the structure of India’s democratic decision-making. The weakening of parliamentary oversight over the executive has the potential to strike at the very roots of India’s democratic foundation and tilt it towards authoritarianism.

The value of parliamentary oversight has to be preserved without unduly interfering and inhibiting the ability of the executive to carry out its functions. The oversight is structurally mandated in India’s Constitutional structure from which the executive and Parliament derive their powers.

Since 2011, Tewari has been flagging the need for parliamentary oversight of national intelligence agencies and it led to a private member’s bill that did not find much political patronage. When the Pegasus issue surfaced, yet another bill was presented that aimed at regulating the way intelligence agencies functioned and it was especially focused on surveillance measures required to be undertaken. It called for the setting up of tribunals and committees for better control and oversight. Both bills are offshoots of the same theme and there are no signs of the bills finding legislative approval.

Interestingly, in his book, Tewari has suggested a dedicated Standing Committee of Parliament staffed with military advisers and other professionals to independently monitor the major defence reform process of transition to a Theatre Command structure. It is necessary to recall that the mandate to shift to a Theatre Command System was purely an executive decision. It is a decision that must be lauded and one that was long overdue. What could a parliamentary committee, as suggested, contribute towards smoothening the envisaged transition? In all probability, the Ministry of Defence will look at this proposal as unnecessary interference in their functioning. However, if Parliament considers that the change proposed has major national security implications, then, in principle, it is within the right to seek oversight. But the existing power imbalance between Parliament and executive would ensure that the oversight is only facilitated as determined by the executive.


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Lack of transparency a risk to democracy

It has not been uncommon to deny information sought by parliamentarians on grounds of secrecy and national security. Most questions pertaining to China’s actions on the northern borders have remained unanswered. If secrecy was the issue, then nothing prevents the government from providing a classified briefing to the leaders of opposition parties. Denial of such information to parliamentarians must be viewed as an act of undemocratic centralisation of power. A phenomenon that characterises authoritarianism.

Such denial of information diminishes our political democracy that is one of the four pillars of India’s national power. The others are domestic economic growth, social inclusion and a broadly liberal constitutional order. Nourishing these foundations is a strategic imperative of a high order. In practice, over some time, there has been a steady regression in transparency, which is the lifeblood of a strong democracy. The Standing Committees of Parliament appear to be having progressively shrinking ability to monitor and correct the transgressions of the executive. Even their recommendations are often met with inaction by the ministries concerned. The executive acts mostly when it perceives benefits in a narrow silo.

The absence of a viable political opposition increases the power of the executive and enlarges the scope for misuse. Essentially, the Constitutional checks and balances become ineffective. On Parliament rests the ultimate responsibility of ensuring the welfare of its citizens. The executive has to be answerable to Parliament. When the executive stops bothering too much about the ‘noises’ from Parliament, the arrogance of power in the hands of a few devours large slices of freedom that is the primary dish of India’s democracy.


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The global return of autocracy

This autocratic style of governance is making a global comeback possibly driven by a broader global uncertainty and associated threats. The style relies on the concentration of power in the hands of a few individuals and it is decidedly anathema to the Indian Republic and its Constitutional values. Globally, there is greater demand for strong leaders. However, in democracies like India, strong leaders mostly mean a deformation in the power equation between the executive and Parliament. When Parliament is deprived of its voice by the executive, it is the citizenry that loses its voice. The Preamble of the Constitution says it all: ‘We, the people…adopt, enact and give to ourselves this constitution’.  It signifies that power is ultimately vested in the hands of the people.

Indians are not only losing their voices with the imbalance between Parliament and the executive but are also increasingly being denied justice because of the pathologies that prevail in the judicial system. Though well known to Parliament and executive, both these organs of the Indian State, over several decades, have failed to address this important issue. Instead, the problem has been going from bad to worse.

Weakening India’s parliamentary system, which is the most important part of India’s democratic structure, is a threat that is finding the supportive winds of global geopolitical frictions. Strong leaders are always required but they should endeavour to derive their strength from democratic values. Otherwise, drunk on power, individuals and oligarchies can be the cause of a country’s ruin. It is a given, that concentration of power in the hands of our union executive is an abomination of our Constitutional values.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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